Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Red River Ox Cart Trails—Our Early Highways

Mention ox cart trails, and many of us visualize deeply rutted paths traveled on by squeaky-wheeled carts. But just as the Pembina Highway in Manitoba and Interstates 29 and 94 in North Dakota and Minnesota are important links in international trade between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities today, the Red River trails of the 1800s were equally important to 19th century trade.

As site supervisor of the Pembina State Museum and Gingras Trading Post State Historic Site, a great deal of the history we present revolves around the Métis, the fur trade, and the Red River carts (the centerpiece of the museum—see photo below). The history of this transportation system created a lot of questions and field trips for me.

Prior to 1800, almost all commerce in the frontier was accomplished by canoe. The Hudson’s Bay Company hauled furs north—including a crossing of Lake Winnipeg—eventually ending up at posts on the shores of Hudson’s Bay where ships waited to transport the furs to Europe. The Northwest Company carried their furs east through the Great Lakes, with a lot of river and lake hopping via portages, until reaching Montreal and the ships bound for the hungry European markets. But travel by canoe was difficult and dangerous.

Credited with using the first carts in the Red River region was Northwest trader Alexander Henry from his post at Pembina. They were relatively small and had solid wheels.

covered wagon

An example of an early Red River cart as would have been used by Alexander Henry

In the early days, the primary route of travel closely hugged the banks of the Red and Minnesota rivers. Due to the nature of the soil in the Red River Valley, these horse-drawn carts could only be used during dry periods, with mud being a major limiting factor. However, cart design and trail location would quickly evolve to meet the challenges of overland travel.

Métis ingenuity created larger carts able to haul up to 1,000 pounds that could be pulled by oxen. Wheel diameter was increased by several feet and were spoked rather than solid. The wheels were dished, or curved inward, to add stability and better handling. By 1830, the more well-known carts were in use and replaced the canoe as the primary means of shipping goods between Winnipeg and St. Paul.

Ox cart

A traditional Red River ox cart. This example, housed in the Pembina State Museum, was built in the 1920s by Louis Allery in the traditional style of the Métis.

While the specifics of the carts themselves are interesting, the selection for trail routes fascinated me. Along with the more versatile carts came new trails. Although the river trails were still used during dry times, the primary trails were moved out of the Red River Valley onto the ancient beach ridges formed by glacial Lake Agassiz. Aptly called the Ridge Trail or West Plains Trail, the soil was much sandier and well-drained, making mud less of a factor. In Minnesota, the trail shifted from following the Minnesota River to a much more direct cross-country route called the East Plains Trail. These remained the principle routes until an unfortunate incident.


Map of the primary trails

In a case of mistaken identity, a group of Métis buffalo hunters attacked a group of young Dakota hunters, with several Dakota being killed. Seeking retribution, the Dakota began patrolling the Plains Trails. In order to avoid a confrontation, the next train of ox carts leaving St. Paul turned north and cut a trail through the forests of Minnesota, which was Ojibway territory, a people friendly to the Métis. Cutting the trail was slow and arduous, but the resulting Woods Trail was used on and off for years depending on the political situation between the Métis and Dakota.

Travel by ox cart was slow, but efficient. Made entirely of wood and leather, there was no need for a blacksmith for on-the-trail repairs. Able to move 15 to 20 miles a day, the course of the trails was carefully selected so that at the end of the day there was always a supply of wood for repairs and cooking fires, and water for the animals. Routes were also chosen based on locations where crossing streams and rivers was easier.

By the 1860s, several thousand carts were making the trip between Winnipeg, Pembina, St. Paul, and the many fledgling settlements along the way. The primary trails saw improvements done by both stagecoach companies and the military, both of which heavily used the trails. Even the Hudson’s Bay Company saw the practicality of overland travel and negotiated trade agreements with the U.S. government to ship their goods via the trails.

Red River Ox cart train

Red River ox cart train

The thriving economy created by the Métis in the Red River region, centered around the bison trade and their carts, was short-lived, however. Competition existed with steamboats but was erratic due to the normal fluctuations in Red River water levels. The arrival of the railroad at Breckinridge in 1871 and Moorhead a year later, combined with dramatically declining bison numbers, forced the Métis bison hunters north and west, leaving a few ruts in the landscape as the only tangible reminder of a prosperous era.

Ox cart ruts

Remnants of ox cart ruts along the old Red River trail

Although most of the cart trails are gone, having been cultivated for decades, some remnants still survive. Finding them can be a bit tricky, but with a little hunting they can be discovered. One spot is at Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, although locating the trails there is a challenge and requires staff assistance. Several other trail pieces have been recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. These include various sites in the Ridge Trail Historic District in Pembina and Walsh counties and the Dease-Martineau House, Trading Post and Oxcart Trail Segments near Leroy, North Dakota, although permission is needed to enter. Contact the Pembina County Historic Preservation Commission at 701.265.4561 or for more information. An easily accessible place to view a trail is in Crow Wing State Park near Brainerd, Minnesota. An incredible source for more information is the book The Red River Trails: Ox Cart Routes between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement by Rhoda R. Gilman, Carolyn Gilman, and Deborah M. Stultz.

And the Bride Wore…

Couples wedding portrait

Former Governor Arthur and First Lady Grace Link at their wedding in 1939. SHSND SA 10943-76

Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style, the upcoming exhibition at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, includes 19 thematic sections ranging from decorative and symbolic feather usage to graduation gowns. One section—dubbed “The Wedding March”—focuses on bridal traditions utilizing a selection of garments, photographs, and accessories. And while bridal white features prominently in the layout, it isn’t the exclusive color.

Drawn from the State Historical Society’s objects and photographic collections, the display captures a wide range of garments worn by North Dakota brides, including an afternoon suit, an evening dress, and an ensemble hand-crocheted by the bride’s grandmother over a three-month period.

Also included are two folk ensembles worn by Norwegian and Icelandic brides in the mid-19th century. The colorful Norwegian bunad includes elaborate embroidery worked with glass beads, while the Icelandic Skautbúningur features a national folk style introduced just prior to its wearing in 1861.

Wedding portrait of a Dakota couple

Wedding portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Dick Ramsey, Fort Yates, circa 1908. The bride wears a fashionable, flounced, white cotton batiste lingerie dress with a dotted Swiss motif, a floral headdress, and silk tulle veil. SHSND SA 1952-2037

The most formal gown in the grouping is also the “history mystery” within the exhibition, as it appears incomplete. The ivory wool flannel and silk brocade gown (SHSND 13405) was worn by Jennie Martha Kelley at her marriage to Oscar St. Clair Chenery, in Jamestown, during the late territorial period. The gown stylistically falls within the second bustle period of the 19th century.

wedding dress bodice detail

Bodice and detail of the Kelley wedding gown, 1886. SHSND 13405

Beginning in the late 1860s the fullness of the period’s bell-shaped skirts began to shift—with the mass moving to the back—often accented with swaged overskirts and flared peplums. This silhouette collapsed in the late 1870s with the introduction of fitted princess-line gowns featuring long trailing fishtail trains. Then, in the 1880s, the bustle reappeared as a very prominent feature extending much like a wide shelf from the base of the wearer’s back.

The period was distinctive for the profuse use of upholstery trims, embroidery, draped swags, and knife-pleated ruffles, all accenting the mass of the bustle. It was the age of conspicuous consumption. Bustles (politely termed tournures) were supported by spring wire, horsehair, and hinged steel hoop understructures of a scale that made it impossible to sit back in a chair, forcing fashionable women to perch sideways when they sat. Ladies chairs were designed without arms to accommodate their full skirts.

The Kelley wedding gown dates to 1886. Its “history mystery” is that the distinctive bustled train is missing. The skirt has been modified yet retains a removable half-moon-shaped dust ruffle indicating the fullness of the original bustle and chapel-length train. The dust ruffle would have protected the underside of the train as it dragged across floors and the ground.

Two lace-edged silk brocade swags positioned over the skirt’s hips—known as a polonaise (in the Polish style)—indicate they led to an incomplete back arrangement that no doubt incorporated both a third swag (completing the polonaise), and a cascade of both silk brocade and lace forming the train. The bustle must have been made as a separate component attached to the back waistline of the skirt.

Another feature of the wedding gown is its rather deep neckline. As it appears, the bride would have had reason to blush as she would have gone down the aisle virtually bare breasted! The neckline’s deep cut and the presence of narrow lapels and lace ruffles indicate it was filled with a chemisette—much like a dickey—providing a more modest secondary inner neckline, probably fashioned of gathered silk tulle matching the dress trim.

Do you know the difference between a bodice and a blouse? A blouse—while it can be tailored—is unstructured. A bodice has a fitted inner lining often including boning and occasionally padding. The steel boning in the Kelley wedding bodice was intended to maintain a smooth silhouette. A separate corset would have been worn as part of the underwear to support the bride’s figure.

Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style will appear in the Governors Gallery at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in 2021.